Emerald Star working to prepare casino site

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 9, 2007

NATCHEZ — For the past six weeks, contractors have been working to carve a road and parking lot out of the bluffs just south of the Mississippi River bridge.

While workers renovate the hotel — the former Ramada Inn — on top of the hill, dump trucks haul dirt under the hill in preparation for a new casino.

Emerald Star Casino-Natchez, LLC, bought the land a year ago and has since demolished part of the hotel and begun rebuilding.

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But operations on top of the bluffs are small compared to the work down the hill.

“They’re pretty much having to create land and an area for parking that wasn’t there before,” City Engineer David Gardner said.

The first and biggest step is to build concrete retaining walls to hold back the soil. One will go along the river’s edge, and another will run just beneath the railroad tracks that cut along the bluff.

Emerald Star hopes to have all of the preparation work completed by late spring, Marketing Director Baxter Lee said.

“The work we’re doing now, we’re preparing for the retaining walls,” Lee said. “The time consumer for this project is all the site work.”

Putting in the retaining walls is the first step. The process will ensure the rest of the project — a road, parking lot and docking area — is stable.

What’s not visible from the ground is a large area cut into the trees under the bluff south of the hotel site.

“That’s a staging area where the retaining walls are being fabricated,” Lee said. “They are concrete casts that are being made on location.”

Unlike the bluffs just upriver, the area where the casino will locate was not part of the bluff stabilization project started by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the late 1990s. Therefore, the retaining walls are vital.

Lee said Emerald Star was “absolutely” comfortable that the area would be stable.

“We’ve had engineers take a look at every inch of what we’re doing to make sure we’re going to have stable ground,” he said.

Geotechnical engineering consultant Eddie Templeton said that though bluffs can be unstable it does not mean they are inherently instable.

“There are number of factors that affect the stability,” he said. “The obvious factors are the height and the inclination of the bluffs — each area is unique.”

One thing that could destabilize the bluffs is the introduction of groundwater into the bluff system, Templeton said.

“Raising the water table raises the moisture content (in the soil), and that could cause it to lose strength,” he said.

A loss of bluff strength could result in a landslide, Templeton said.

“On a less dramatic scale, it could cause caving and mud flows when unusually heavy rain blows in and saturates the surface of the bluff,” he said. “Of course you’re going to have to contend with erosion.”

However, the introduction of a small or even large amount of groundwater does not mean the bluff will fail, Templeton said.

Gardner said he was comfortable with the work as long as the project followed the proposed plans.

“We’re watching and making sure they do everything they’re supposed to do,” he said.

Water runoff will also be addressed with drainage systems to divert water from the bluff, Lee said.

After the retaining walls are in place, the road and parking lot will be built.

The road passers-by see now is an access road for workers, not where the finished road will be.

A road from the highway will lead through a tunnel under the railroad tracks to a parking lot, Lee said. The idea is to avoid climbing up to the tracks and back down to the parking lot, he said.

“Because of the elevation of the land, going over (the tracks) was not a realistic alternative,” he said.

The work on that phase of the project is expected to begin in October, Lee said.

Then, a large parking lot will be laid for customers.

“(Visitors) will be able to park adjacent to the casino,” Lee said. “It will be a one-level lot, so, as you can imagine, there is a lot of work that needs to be done.”

The parking lot may actually benefit the bluff, as far as stability is concerned, Templeton said.

“The surface engineering (for the parking lot) is done so water is redirected into the storm drainage system and actually seals off part of the surface from the introduction of water,” he said.

The hotel is scheduled to open in January or February, and the casino will likely open in April.